An Indigenous Voice – The experience of Bolivia

An Indigenous Voice – The experience of Bolivia
Friday 22 September 2023

On 21 September the Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies and the ANU First Nations Portfolio co-hosted the fourth in a series of panel discussions to compare and contrast approaches to indigenous issues in Australia and Latin America. The focus of the session was the experience of Bolivia, which has the region’s most progressive Constitution in term of protection and promotion of indigenous rights.

Peter Yu (Vice President of the First Nations Portfolio) referred to certain commonalities between the experiences of Australia and Latin America in dealing with indigenous issues. The discredited doctrines of discovery and terra nullius, for example. The absence of consultation with indigenous people in the lead-up to national independence. And the mixed record of attempts to address systematic racism and denial of indigenous rights. However, he contrasted progressive initiatives in countries such as Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia to enshrine such rights in their Constitutions with the more modest proposal in Australia for a Constitutional amendment to recognize First Peoples through the establishment of an Indigenous Voice.

Yuri Mantilla (Professor of Law, Liberty University, United States) said that despite the diversity of indigenous groups in Bolivia they shared a common history of resistance – to colonialism, military dictatorship, the exploitation of resources and disregard for indigenous rights. The struggle culminated in 2006 with the election of the first indigenous President, Evo Morales, and in 2009 with the fundamental reform of the Constitution. He highlighted in particular the Constitution’s acknowledgement that Bolivia is founded on plurality and that indigenous peoples enjoy certain explicit rights. Not least the right to self-determination, collective ownership of land, multi-language education, practice of their political, juridical and economic systems, to be consulted on legislative or administrative measures that may be foreseen to affect them, and autonomous territorial management.

In the ensuing discussion panelists noted (in the case of Bolivia and Ecuador) that in practice there was often a significant gap between the elaboration of Constitutional principles and their implementation. However, they also acknowledged there has been tangible progress in such areas as the political and economic empowerment of indigenous peoples, protection of natural resources, and local and regional autonomy. They considered that despite the imperfections, their experience of Constitutional reform had sent a powerful message both nationally and globally about what can be achieved and built upon in the future to promote and protect indigenous rights to the benefit of all citizens.

A full recording of the discussion can be viewed here.


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